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Dennis Lehane on ‘Black Bird,’ How to Write a Realistic Serial Killer, and Being Done with Movies

"I feel like I've written my last movie," Lehane tells IndieWire, while looking back on his first experience as a showrunner. "I'm a TV guy. I'm just a TV guy."

Black Bird Taron Egerton Paul Walter Hauser Apple TV show

Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in “Black Bird”

Gavin Bond / Apple TV+

Life is a series of trials and errors — where, if you’re lucky, you can follow your passions from one interest to the next until you’ve amassed a wealth of experiences. Dennis Lehane, an award-winning novelist, playwright, producer, and screenwriter, has done just that, carving out an enviable career across a wide swath of the entertainment industry. His novels have been adapted into movies; his movies have gone on to critical acclaim; his TV work elevated some of this century’s best shows.

But for years, the next item on Lehane’s to-do list was showrunning. The writer behind episodes of “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire” had tried, multiple times, to develop and run his own series, but greater forces kept his dream at a distance (including a TV show built around his beloved characters, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, that came tantalizingly close to fruition).

Now, with the Apple TV+ six-part limited series “Black Bird,” Lehane can add that key credit to his resume — and better yet, even as a first-time showrunner, he loved doing it.

“Not everything that could go wrong [did], but a lot of things that could go wrong did go wrong when we were shooting,” Lehane said. “And it was so much less stressful and fear-inducing than I had expected. I was continually surprised by how much I was enjoying myself. I was having the best time of my life, even in total chaos. And it’s southern Louisiana. It’s hot as hell. Lightning strikes. We had a hurricane. We had COVID flare-ups left and right. We had all of that. And yet, I loved it.”

“Black Bird,” an adaptation of James Keene’s memoir “In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption,” was originally set up at HBO. With five scripts ready to shoot, Lehane said the network ended up passing, but let the series go to former HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler, who took it to Apple as an independent producer. Lehane said once Taron Egerton signed on to play the lead role — Jimmy Keene, a felon with a chance to walk free if he can get a confession out of suspected serial killer, Larry Hall — “it was like, ‘Oh wow. Holy God. This is actually happening.'”

Lehane assembled a writers’ room of “people who don’t mind speaking truth to power, people who are smart and bright,” including Riccardo DiLoreto, Sean K. Smith, and Steve Harris. He fell in love with the casting process, went to set every day, and planted himself in the editing bay for post-production. He stuck with the show from beginning to end, and now, as “Black Bird” makes it premiere, IndieWire spoke with Lehane about why he was so eager to tell this story, what it says about men’s compulsion to “weaponize” objectification, the one line that made co-star Paul Walter Hauser “break down,” what’s next on his to-do list, and, yes, how Lehane fell in love with TV showrunning.

“I feel like I’ve written my last movie,” Lehane said. “I’m a TV guy. I’m just a TV guy.”

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

IndieWire: Knowing you wanted to be a showrunner, did you get any advice while working in TV about what to watch out for on your first show? Any pitfalls to avoid?

Dennis Lehane: I’ll give you a perfect example. So Greg Kinnear plays [Detective Brian] Miller, and we wanted to show, not tell, with Greg’s character. So why is he so impassioned about putting Larry [played by Paul Walter Hauser] behind bars? It’s the relationship he has with his daughter. There are only two scenes with the daughter — it’s not big, it’s small — but I know what it’s going to get like in production. I, by this point, know the scenes that get cut, that don’t shoot. I know there’s going to be a moment where we’re all going to go, “It’s too hot. We’re over budget. We’re [behind] schedule. Cut the scene of the little girl in the park.” And I was like, “No.”

Both of those scenes seem like extraneous scenes, and maybe only somebody who watches the show three times is going to really pick up on what we were trying to do. But I was like, “Those scenes stay. Nobody’s cutting these babies, no matter what.” And they tried it.

Dennis Lehane at the premiere of "Black Bird" held at the Bruin Westwood on June 29, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Dennis Lehane at the premiere of “Black Bird”

Gilbert Flores for Variety

So what surprised you about the showrunning process?

I knew I loved editing. But what shocked me was how much I loved casting — lived for it! I loved working with [Alexa L. Fogel], the casting director. We had a blast [with] all these actors giving their recorded auditions. I might have 20 of them, and I’d just come home at the end of the day, sit in my house, go through audition, after audition, after audition, often for two or three lines. But I loved it.

And there was no part too small. We even had one guy with one line and the director, Jim McKay, called me. He was like, “Is this guy really an actor? Or is he really a crazy person? Did you find an actual crazy person to play a crazy person? Because he’s scaring us right now.” I said, “No, I think he’s an actor.” So I zipped down to the set and, “No, that’s the actor I hired. That’s him.”

Backing up a bit, what was it about James Keene’s book or the project itself that made you pursue it?

Well, there were three things. One, it’s a very mythological story, and I love myth. It’s as old as Gilgamesh. He is the man charged with protecting his village by leaving, entering a cave with a monster, and vanquishing the monster. Then he comes back a changed man, a fundamentally changed human being. That’s the oldest story in the world. And I love that.

The second thing [came up when] I was listening to the book on tape as I was trying to decide whether I wanted to do it, and I started to think a lot about the male gaze, objectification. Everybody objectifies. I don’t care who you are. Everybody objectifies. I know the human being. It’s what we do. [But] it seems that only men weaponize it. If we’re an alphabetical spectrum, Larry’s a serial killer, so he’s Z. And if Larry’s Z, then where do the rest of us fall? Because I don’t think any of us are [an A], as pure as we’d to think. That’s personally how I feel.

So I said where’s Jimmy fall? Not the real Jimmy Keene, Jimmy Keene my character — where does he fall on this spectrum? The key for Jimmy, as he’s told early on, is: “You have to find common ground with this monster or you will never get him to talk.” How do you find common ground with a serial killer? Where does it intersect? Well, most men intersect certainly on objectification. That’s an easy way to strike up a conversation. So that’s where I start.

Then the third thing was there was a moment in the book when Jimmy quotes Larry Hall. [The quote] made me pull my car over on the side of the road. It shook me that much. I had to take a minute. And when we did the table read for the first time, Paul, reading that line, that very line, broke down. He couldn’t stay in character. [The line] shows up in Episode 5, and it’s factually sourced. It’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. It’s just the ultimate horror.

Sorry, if you don’t want to say, that’s fine, but what was the line?

I can’t say it. No, you got to watch the show. We don’t want to spoil it.

When it came to writing the dialogue between Jimmy and Larry, how often were you able to source out what was said? There had to be a give and take between what you knew was said and what needed to be said for the story you’re telling to work.

Well, Jimmy’s description of his dance with Larry in the book is sometimes more paraphrased, so it’s hard to say what the specifics are. I had to reconstruct the dance between these two guys. And once I said, “Well, I’m going into the buzzsaw that is misogyny,” then I at least had a thematic template.

I started with Larry. Larry would say these bizarre things. And Jimmy would be, “OK, I’m just going to try to keep up here in this conversation.” Then as time goes on, Jimmy has to start instigating the conversation, so he has to start telling stories about himself. Some of them are true, some of them are lies. But once the toxicity of [Larry’s] loneliness meets up against the toxicity of his hatred for women, once those two come together, maybe he’ll confess. And that’s the key.

So some of those conversations come right from the book, including the one that I was talking about [in Episode 5]. Others I had to put on my weird transportation hat and teleport myself into Larry’s head, which is always cool.

Black Bird Paul Walter Hauser Apple TV show

Paul Walter Hauser in “Black Bird”

Courtesy of Apple TV+

How do you write a character who’s a serial killer, or a suspected serial killer, without steering too far toward either extreme? That he’s either a terrifying, one-of-a-kind monster, or just a normal guy with a big secret?

Larry is a monster. Larry is irredeemable. That is not up for discussion. But he is also a human monster. So how do you tell the story of somebody like that, and you’re evoking empathy, not sympathy? I don’t sympathize with Larry. He’s never been convicted, but he potentially killed 20 to 40 women, so I don’t sympathize with him. But at the same time, I empathize with the abject loneliness that exists in that person. Where I found a place to show that was through his relationship with his brother, which is the only healthy relationship he has. The Larry-Gary scenes helped humanize Larry more than anything.

Were there any key aspects to Larry that you pulled from reality?

Jimmy had told me a couple of things that made me go, “Oh, I love that.” One was that when Larry would get really excited about a concept, his eyes would bulge. I just found that absolutely fascinating because I knew somebody who did that. They’d emphasize a point, but their eyes would shoot up like something in Roger Rabbit. It’s a specific direction I gave Paul, too: “When Larry gets jacked up, bulge his eyes.”

There was a couple of details Jimmy gave me that weren’t necessarily in the book. They were from emails he sent me. The other was, I noticed early that our instinct as writers [left him] sounding like a Bond villain. So one of my questions for Jimmy was, “Did Larry swear?” Because our instinct — I don’t know why the hell it is, [maybe] it’s from watching too many serial killer and Bond movies over our lives — [but] the instinct when you [write] a serial killer is to have him speak very precisely. So I wrote to Jimmy and he said, “Yeah, [he swore] all the time.” I was like, “Oh, thank God!” That helped humanize [Larry] because you don’t think a serial killer’s just sitting around saying, “I watched that fucking Julia Roberts movie last night and it sucks.” You know what I mean? But they are. They are.

With “Black Bird’s” debut, what’s next for you?

I think I can talk about it. I’m working on a project for Apple TV+ based on a podcast called “Firebug,” which was about the greatest serial arsonist in California’s history. Then I’m hoping to do an adaptation of my next novel, which won’t come out until the spring of next year. That’s a passion project of mine. [It’s set] during the summer leading up to the desegregation of the public schools in Boston in 1974. So that’s something that I’ve long wanted to tell, and I finally told it. Those are my two. That’s it. I don’t think I’m going to write a movie ever– I feel like I’ve written my last movie. I’m a TV guy. I’m just a TV guy.

“Black Bird” premiered its first two episodes Friday, July 8 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.

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